NASA Awards Contracts To Supply Space Station

For the first time, NASA is planning to privatize supply operations for the International Space Station. The agency has awarded roughly $3 billion worth of contracts to two companies to develop rockets to haul cargo to the orbiting outpost.

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And for the first time, NASA is planning to privatize supply operations for the International Space Station. The agency has awarded roughly $3 billion in contracts to two companies to develop rockets that can haul cargo to the outpost. NPR's Ina Jaffe reports.

INA JAFFE: The reason for these contracts is simple, says John Pike of GlobalSecurity.com. The shuttle fleet is being retired in 2010, and there won't be anything to replace it for about five years.

Mr. JOHN E. PIKE (Director, GlobalSecurity.org): Until then, these rockets are going to be the only way that the United States - on its own, without help from Russia - will be able to get cargo up to the International Space Station.

JAFFE: That being said, Pike notes that neither of the companies selected by NASA has ever come close to doing what the agency is asking of them. Orbital Sciences of Virginia has designed a rocket that carries small payloads into space, but it's launched from an airplane. Then there's the Southern California-based Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX. It was founded just six years ago by Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk. He made a fortune when he sold his company, PayPal, to eBay. He poured part of the proceeds into SpaceX, hoping to design a cheaper, safer rocket to put payloads in orbit.

Mr. PIKE: In hiring both of these companies, NASA's keeping their powder dry by betting on two companies rather than one.

JAFFE: In September, SpaceX's two-stage Falcon rocket became the first privately built liquid-fueled booster to successfully reach Earth orbit. Ina Jaffe, NPR News.

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